By Carly Marriott, Barooga
Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has been telling the nation that we have nothing to fear, because our world-class farmers can produce enough food for 75 million people and we only have a population of 25 million.
Perhaps his lack of knowledge around this claim is due to inexperience in his portfolio, though one could be excused for thinking it’s more aligned to achieving his political ambitions rather than being upfront with our nation.
Mr Littleproud is partly correct with his “we can feed 75 million people” claim, though he forgets to acknowledge an important ingredient which is required to achieve this lofty goal.
Of course it is water, a subject which Mr Littleproud found rather tough during a previous ministry.
For the benefit of Mr Littleproud and others (including the National Party’s friends at the NFF), we can only grow food for 75 million people if we provide adequate water for those in our nation’s food bowls, in particular the productive regions of northern Victoria and the Murray/Riverina in NSW.
In recent years we have squandered our water; a waste of catastrophic proportions that Mr Littleproud refuses to acknowledge, perhaps because he may then have to take some responsibility.
The result is obvious when you look at the most recent ABARES (Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences) crop reports, which show a disturbing decline in summer crop production.
This has occurred since we started implementation of the disastrous Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
While I acknowledge that lower rainfall has had an impact, it must be noted that in the past the food bowls to which I refer were able to maintain production through efficient use of our most precious resource — water.
The basin plan has put an end to that and the chickens are coming home to roost, as the ABARES predictions tell us.
For example, total summer crop production in 2019-20 is predicted to fall by 66 per cent to around 878 000 tonnes.
Now, let’s assume that at 100 per cent we are growing enough food for Mr Littleproud’s 75 million people — cut that by 66 per cent and we’re back to 25 million; just enough to feed Australians, but nothing for valuable exports, nor our contribution to feeding starving people throughout the world.
Cotton production is tipped to decline 72 per cent, so get used to buying imported clothes because there will be a severe shortage with a ‘Made In Australia’ label.
The ABARES report tells us the 2019 winter crop production was about 27 per cent below the 10-year average to 2018-19, which includes the record high production of 2016-17 when water was in abundance.
Wheat production was 35 per cent below the 10-year average. And you think there are problems now with pasta supplies.
As for rice, it’s been an almost non-existent summer crop for the past two years and without government intervention that is likely to extend to at least three.
In the large rice growing area of the NSW Murray, farmers watch in despair as water pours down the river causing environmental damage, floods forests, is lost in evaporation and then flows out to sea. But due to our crazy water policies their allocation is zero so paddocks lie bare.
Their predicament is highlighted by the ABARES report into NSW summer crop production, which showed the most recent summer crop plantings were down 61 per cent on the previous year, and is merely 28 per cent of the 10-year average. Production was barely 22 per cent of the 2018 summer.
So with these indisputable government figures, who is Mr Littleproud trying to kid? And why?
If nothing else, this current pandemic is highlighting the need for Australia to reassess its food production.
If we don’t, the shortage of staple foods will become a more common occurrence.
My greatest concern is that recent experience tells me politicians with the courage to acknowledge the problem and implement the solutions — which they have been handed on a platter numerous times — are more rare than toilet paper on the supermarket shelf.